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Zen Poetry


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Zen Poetry

One doesn't have to practice Zen Buddhism to enjoy the beauty and simplicity of Zen poetry. Looking deeper with understanding will enhance any experience and Zen poetry is the perfect conduit. Zen Poetry could be called a school of poetry but I have concluded that Zen poetry is any contemplative piece that shares a moment of awareness as a result of deep meditation.

Zen (Japanese) or Chan (Chinese) literally means meditation and Zen Buddhists believe that meditation is at the center of the journey to enlightenment. "Zen lies beyond the details of words and letters, outside mental conditions, in the inconceivable, in what ultimately cannot be grasped." From Sources of Japanese Traditions, Wm Theodore de Bary, Donald Keene, George Tenabe & Paul Varley, 2001 Columbia University Press, pg 307.

Most schools of Buddhism cite particular scripture to support their specific form of practice. In contrast, Zen Buddhism rejects such authority, encompasses many diverse practices and cites ancestral lineage as its authority. The Zen school claims direct ancestral lineage passed in unbroken succession from Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, to today. Teachings are passed from master to disciple, often without words.

Zen disciples strive to live a pure life. There are 5 moral precepts that are practiced but wisdom and enlightenment carry more emphasis. With wisdom and enlightenment the 5 precepts should be easily followed.

Zen came from India to China in the 6th century and on to Japan in the 8th century.

Zen Chinese monks were the first to write poetry as an extension of their meditation. Therefore the earliest Zen poems were written in the Chinese style of the time, quatrains with lines of equal length, often the lines parallel each other. The first Japanese disciples studying in China continued the tradition of Chinese style writing and brought it home to the Japanese monasteries.

Urban monasteries in Kyoto and other populous areas known as The Five Mountain temples became centers for learning, promoting Chinese poetry, painting and calligraphy. The role of the Five Mountain Zen temples, introducing Chinese arts into medieval Japan, helped create a permanent bridge between Zen and medieval forms of artistic expression.

About the same time, another branch of Zen practiced in the Rinka (forest) monasteries which had sprouted up in the Japanese countryside and was populated by less educated monks who also made their mark without the Chinese influence. Poetry from the Rinka temples was influenced more by the rural setting of the Japanese countryside.

Over time, Zen poetry has evolved, there is no common form for Zen poetry, it can be written in any style, any language. What appears, what is now, what is clear, is written with an economy of words and shared as "Zen Poetry". Zen poetry requires the poet to be aware and in the moment, connected to all that surrounds him. Simply knowing that Zen poetry had its beginnings in classical Chinese writing and comes from a meditative experience led me to expect only ethereal words of inspiration in the poetry. However after reading a broad selection of Zen poetry, I was surprised at the earthiness of much of the poetry. This illustrates the Zen concept of connectedness with all that surrounds you on the journey to enlightenment.

Enlightenment is basically not a tree,
And the clear mirror is not a stand.
Fundamentally there is not a single thing -
Where can dust collect.
                     -- Huineng, Sixth Zen Patriarch in China, (638-713)
                        Transmission of Light, Thomas Cleary, p. 140

In Japan there was a well-known region, Matsushima. It is by the ocean, with mountains, rivers, trees, and flowers. It inspired many poems. 16th century Zen Master and poet, Basho visited the area and when he saw the beauty of this place he wrote:

Matsushima --
ah, Matsushima!

"Three clear lines! This is a very famous poem. Only Matsushima is Matsushima -- it is very simple. That is the most important point. This is great Zen poetry." (from an interview of Zen Master Seung Sahn, author of Bone of Space, Zen Poetry.)

The following are poems by the Zen monk-poet, Ikkyu (1394-1481) which can be found in Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu, translated by John Stevens. 1995; Shambala in Boston,

I Hate Incense
A master's handiwork cannot be measured
But still priests wag their tongues explaining the "Way" and babbling about "Zen."
This old monk has never cared for false piety
And my nose wrinkles at the dark smell of incense before the Buddha.

A Fisherman
Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.

My Hovel
The world before my eyes is wan and wasted, just like me.
The earth is decrepit, the sky stormy, all the grass withered.
No spring breeze even at this late date,
Just winter clouds swallowing up my tiny reed hut.

A Meal of Fresh Octopus
Lots of arms, just like Kannon the Goddess;
Sacrificed for me, garnished with citron, I revere it so!
The taste of the sea, just divine!
Sorry, Buddha, this is another precept I just cannot keep.

~~ © ~~ Poems by Judi Van Gorder ~~

For permission to use this work you can write to Tinker1111@icloud.com

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